May 6, 2016

Stanford Professor Explores South African Wealth Redistribution

On May 3, more than 40 people gathered in a room in the Franke Institute for the Humanities, circling around the acclaimed author and Stanford anthropology professor James Ferguson. Ferguson’s new book, Give a Man a Fish: Reflections on the New Politics of Distribution, was the topic of the brief opening lecture and influenced the subsequent group conversation. The book explores various social welfare methods used by the South African government in trying to slowly recover from the inequities of the apartheid era.

Ferguson spoke at length about the focus of his book: direct cash transfers as a form of social welfare in South Africa. The country sometimes uses direct cash transfers, sometimes simply bank deposits, as a relatively easy way to redistribute wealth on a country-wide scale. This method of cash transfer relies on pretexts instead of simply “giving out money”; this is because some South African communities call a man who can’t support his family on his own “shameful” or “disgraceful.” The transfer might be called a “wage” for “guarding the natural wonder of the forests.”

Redistributing wealth, and the methods by which South Africa accomplishes it, formed the basis of Ferguson’s analyses in his lecture. He started the lecture by reviewing South Africa’s position as a leader for the implementation of social welfare programs in the region, later moving on to the possible implications of expanding such welfare programs.

Ferguson took care to address the complexities of redistributing wealth by examining what makes up a rightful claim in South Africa. For most of the country, he said, claims of inheritance are gravitating toward a certain race. Ferguson noted that he, like many of the country’s onlookers, fears a racially defined South Africa, for its inverted similarities to the apartheid-era racial dynamics.

At one point, Ferguson recalled an anecdote regarding a waitress who served a few student protesters in South Africa; instead of the waitress receiving a tip, she found a note on the table that said “you will get your tip when we get our land back.” Ferguson used this example to illuminate his idea of South African citizens’ anxiety regarding labor: “Whenever wage labor is scarce, it is regarded as a property that needs to be protected from foreigners,” Ferguson said. He said that the feeling of needing to “guard” wage labor usually leads to protests, violence, and shame in South African communities.

Ferguson remarked that the circumstances surrounding the South African communities are much more complex than they might appear. He warned his audience against seeing the welfare program and receiving communities merely as a market system. “We get a distorted understanding of the world by forcing it into a Productivist mindset,” Ferguson said. “I’m much more interested in what the cash transfers [under pretexts] mean [to South Africans]. Not just, ‘How did they spend the money?’”

Ferguson noted that, in some of the region’s communities, there exists a dangerous “idealization of the apartheid labor system for jobs,” a sort of romanticizing of the “time where men could be men.” He explained that social welfare programs are aiming to stop these kinds of angry community sentiments. “[The South Africans’] ancestors collectively worked to make a vast wealth, and the denizens of South Africa claim that they have a right to inheritance from their history,” Ferguson said.

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